Jeremy Bernstein, a 42-year-old who spends half the year in Miami Beach, says he has lost about $4,000 trying to sell Pepe the Frog-themed hot sauce to the racists and neo-Nazis on 4chan, Twitter, and the rest of the dark, sweaty armpits of the internet who worship the alt-right meme. The biggest reaction he's gotten, he says, has not come from alt-righters but instead from Pepe the Frog creator Matt Furie, who sent Bernstein a cease-and-desist letter two months ago to demand he stop his venture.
But Bernstein is adamant that Furie can't stop him from selling his St. Augustine, Florida-made hot sauce, which he writes online is "approved by nationalists everywhere" and "guaranteed to produce Regressive Liberal and SJW tears."
"I got cease-and-desisted by WilmerHale," the law firm representing Furie pro bono, Bernstein tells New Times. "But Furie doesn't have a trademark on it. They can't cease-and-desist me. They tried. But he never trademarked it." Bernstein claims Pepe the Frog is therefore "public domain." But, he adds, "I have a buddy who gave me some legal advice and told me I can't trademark it."
Neither Furie nor WilmerHale immediately responded to messages from New Times. But Furie has already scored some legal victories, including getting a virulently anti-Muslim Pepe-themed children's book removed from circulation.
Furie, who hates the alt-right and never intended his cartoon frog to become a national symbol of racism and intolerance, used a legal settlement to force the children's book creator, Eric Hauser, to give any money he made from the book to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights group.
A single bottle of Hot Pepe's "Over the Wall" Hot Sauce retails for $9.95 online. The eponymous frog on the label is wearing fairly offensive, stereotypically Mexican accessories — a sombrero and thick black mustache — and holding a taco.
But Bernstein insists he began making the hot sauce to prove that Pepe isn't a symbol of intolerance.
"Calling a frog a racist symbol is the most ridiculous thing on the planet," he says. "Fortunately, we have the First Amendment." Mostly, though, he claims he created the sauce "for fun" and chose the name "Hot Pepe's" simply because "the domain name was available."
"I think it’s really astonishing to call everyone you disagree with a Nazi," he says. "Oh, like, 'Trump is a Nazi. Bannon is a Nazi. Gorka is a Nazi.'"
The conversation briefly digresses from hot sauce: Asked about the former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka's extremely obvious ties to a Hungarian group known for Nazi collaboration called the Vitezi Rend, Bernstein exclaims, "He has no Nazi ties! Gorka is just a pro-Israel guy. Gorka is a Zionist, a right-wing guy. People confuse 'nationalism' and 'national socialism,' like the Nazis." Bernstein mentions that he himself is Jewish.
OK, back to condiments.
"I'm 42, so I have no connection to any of these guys online or anything," he says of websites such as Reddit and 4chan, which serve as hubs for the alt-right. He says the sauce was intended to be used on chicken tenders, in reference to the 4chan "chicken tendies" meme, wherein users write stories about an autistic, overweight character complaining about "normie" people and demanding chicken "tendies." (It's entirely possible to spend an unhealthy amount of time online and still barely understand this meme. Don't feel bad if you're confused.)
Bernstein elaborates, "So it was originally intended to be a chicken-tendie sauce, like, you know, 'These autistic kids go crazy about chicken tendies.' So it's a spicy tendie sauce. But it's actually a very tasty hot sauce." He offers to ship New Times a free sample. No thanks.
Pepe themed hot sauce....is this real or an elaborate meme?https://t.co/jN6tv5sEQ0— Mike Cernovich (@Cernovich) March 21, 2017
Bernstein, who grew up in New York and began living part-time in Miami in 2002, declines to reveal what he does for a living and simply says he has a "technology background" and got into "Bitcoin and some other things real early." He says he splits his time between the Magic City and New York City because of his wife's job.
He briefly wrote articles for Big League Politics, a pro-Trump website tied to Cassandra Fairbanks, the right-wing journalist infamous for suing ex-Gawker reporter Emma Roller for calling Fairbanks a white supremacist. In May, Fairbanks apparently took a bottle of Hot Pepe's to a party the former Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos threw in Miami.
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While writing for the site, Bernstein attended the alt-right anti-Sharia rally in New York City this past June and filmed himself there. He has not written for the site in five months.
Bernstein says it costs so much to ship bottles of sauce nationwide that he loses money on each bottle he sells.
"It's a net-loss product," he says. "There's not really a worse business you can do than ship a bottle of hot sauce around the country."